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Many Syrians Are Already In The U.S. With No Clue What Their Future Holds

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 18/11/2015 Elise Foley
ATHENA IMAGE © JOSEPH EID via Getty Images ATHENA IMAGE

WASHINGTON -- Bassam Barabandi knows many of the men and women in this town who shape policy relating to his home country of Syria.

The 45-year-old has offered advice at the White House and the State Department. On the Hill, too. His face, with its thick eyebrows and animated expressions, is familiar at think tanks and gala events. The Wall Street Journal published a lengthy profile on Barabandi last September, revealing that he had previously provided details about Syrian President Bashar Assad's tyrannical regime that have informed U.S. sanctions policy. Barabandi also helped shape the course of the anti-Assad revolution by using his perch at the Syrian Embassy in Washington to  secretly issue passports to pro-democracy activists. He's now a regular voice -- through opinion pieces , think tank reports  and his involvement with People Demand Change, a nongovernmental organization he co-founded that works with Syrian civil society -- in the years-long debate about what President Barack Obama should do about Assad and the Islamic State group's foothold in Syria.

"Bassam Barabandi exhibited admirable courage while posted to the Syrian embassy in Washington," said Fred Hof, Obama's former special adviser on Syria. "He incurred great danger to himself through those activities and continues to do so as a very eloquent and credible opponent of the Assad regime."

"If the Assad regime has an 'enemies list' -- and I imagine it does -- the name Bassam Barabandi would be near the top," Hof, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, wrote in an email to The Huffington Post.

Barabandi could, however, be wrenched away from all of that at any time. So could his wife, three children, parents and sister, all of whom have who built lives in the Washington area since Barabandi's former work in the Syrian diplomatic service brought them here in 2008. 

 

Barabandi applied for asylum in the U.S. on June 17, 2013, completing the forms on his Assad regime-issued computer. He left his job at the embassy a little over a month later.

Two and a half years have passed, and he's still not sure what will happen.

"They're still vetting me," Barabandi told HuffPost. "They have the right to reject me. They don't have the right to hijack my life."

He'd like to know if the answer is a no, so that he can decide whether to relocate -- though he believes a rejection would make it nearly impossible for him to gain asylum in Canada or Europe.

The former diplomat said he and his family have been interviewed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services twice: first in early 2014, and again in August of this year. 

His case presents special challenges, Barabandi acknowledged. His former job as a government official -- one who entered the U.S. on a diplomatic visa -- means that USCIS is eager to ensure he was never implicated in the kinds of human rights violations that are de rigeur for Assad's cronies. His response to that concern has been to point out that his focus was never internal Syrian affairs and that he has spent most of his career in D.C. and New York.

One potential advantage Barabandi does have is that Washington power players are aware of his work and his immigration troubles.

Such visibility, though, also comes with a risk: that other Syrians, hearing about his trouble, will believe the Assad regime's argument that there is no good to come from cooperating with the opposition or seeking Western aid.

USCIS did not respond to a request for comment on Barabandi or others' applications, citing privacy policies.

Barabandi is one of scores of Syrians already in the U.S. who are growing increasingly frustrated about how their cases appear frozen, even as Washington tries to decide which additional Syrians it can take in to ease the refugee crisis hitting Europe -- and as some high-profile politicians, including many Republican governors, advocate denying all refugees from the splintering country. Many Syrians who came to the U.S. months before the current refugee debate requested asylum, only to experience long wait times that make their futures uncertain. The government's response: It's facing an unprecedented backlog. 

Although they are allowed to remain in the U.S., Syrians waiting for asylum interviews and decisions complain about going years without knowing whether they should put down more permanent roots here.

"It is very important because people who are here right now, their lives have been shattered in the civil war in Syria and they deserve a second chance of building their lives," said George Batah, a Syrian activist who was invited to the White House after penning a petition that asked the president to admit more refugees.

The problem isn't unique to Syrians. There are long backlogs for interviews for people of all nationalities who applied for asylum. The wait times vary by jurisdiction , but the worst are in Los Angeles, where some people who applied affirmatively -- or not while in deportation proceedings -- filed in August 2011 but were not scheduled for interviews until September of this year.

The process is supposed to be much faster. By law , the government is supposed to have its initial interview or asylum on the hearing application within 45 days of filing, and make a final decision within 180 days.

But the law says timeline matters only "in the absence of exceptional circumstances" -- such as, according to the government, the backlog that currently exists.

The reason for the backlog is a huge increase in the caseload at USCIS, an official said. The agency prioritizes people in detention who are being considered for asylum based on what's called credible fear of returning to their home country.

For Syrians, that could mean assault by forces loyal to Assad, which have caused massive civilian casualties , or by any of the armed opposition groups, including extremists like those aligned with the Islamic State.

There are, however, plenty of other countries in crisis whose citizens are nervous for their lives. From fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2014, the number of credible fear referrals to USCIS went up by 850 percent, the official said. Affirmative asylum applications increased 132 percent in the same time period.

To address the problem, USCIS nearly doubled its staffing over the past two years and started prioritizing older applications over new ones, according to the official.

Waiting for this bureaucratic shuffling to bear fruit can be painful for the Syrians who traveled here hoping for safety and compassion.

S.I., a 26-year-old is only being identified by his initials because of concern for contacts back in Syria, came to the U.S. in July 2013 on a student visa. He has since graduated with a civil engineering degree, and is now working while completing a pre-MBA program.

S.I. said he applied for asylum in July 2014, but still hasn't received an interview. After 150 days, individuals who have filed but not received an interview can apply for work authorization. But S.I. was rejected, which threatened a job he'd been offered. He was able to get an international student visa that will expire in January.

S.I. said he applied for work authorization through his asylum application again early last month.

As he awaits his asylum interview, S.I. can't leave the country because he might be unable to get back in. He said he feels stuck.

"I'm just asking for an interview, at least to know their decision," he said. Even if he found out it was rejected, S.I. said, he'd be able to plan what to do next.

Ola, 32, who is being referred to by her last name for safety of her family abroad, said she has been waiting for an interview since last October. She came to the U.S. on a visitor visa in September 2014 with her son, who is a U.S. citizen.

Ola said that before coming to the U.S., she was working in Iraq with the United Nations, and began to fear for her life -- and that of her unborn daughter. The baby was born in January, while Ola was in the U.S.

Her husband hasn't been able to see their baby yet because his visa application was rejected twice, and Ola doesn't want to leave the U.S. for fear she wouldn't be able to return. Their son, who is 4 years old, often asks her where his father is, she said, breaking down in tears. They talk on video chat every day.

The long wait times mean that as their cases are pending, people like Ola can't petition for their family members to join them, explained Dree Collopy, an immigration attorney who specializes in asylum cases. Like Ola, many asylum-seekers left family members behind to move to safety.

"The biggest problem is that these are victims of trauma and persecution and torture," Collopy said. "And keeping them in this state of limbo for that long doesn't enable them to really heal and move on with their lives."

Ola's son is asking questions about his father, she said.

"'Why don't you come to us, I want to see you, I miss you,'" he tells his father, she said. "His dad keeps telling him, 'Keep praying to God to let us meet again.'"

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